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Jhon Jairo Velásquez, 57, Dies; Escobar Henchman Turned YouTube Star

Jhon Jairo Velásquez, a former member of the Medellín drug cartel who boasted of committing hundreds of murders on behalf of the drug lord Pablo Escobar, and who parlayed his criminal past into a popular YouTube channel, books and a movie, died on Thursday in Bogotá, Colombia. He was 57.

His death was announced by Colombia’s National Penitentiary and Prison Institute. Imprisoned on charges of extortion in 2018, he had been hospitalized since Dec. 31 with late-stage stomach cancer.

Mr. Velásquez said he had murdered more than 300 people and been involved in the killings of 3,000 others, an account that has never been confirmed.

“I’m a professional killer, I killed for money,” he said in “Escobar’s Hit Man,” a 2017 documentary on the Russian television network RT. “I also killed out of love and respect for Pablo Escobar.”

Before his latest sentence, he had spent 22 years in prison for plotting the killing of a Colombian presidential candidate in 1989. After his release on parole in 2014, he achieved celebrity by posting dozens of videos on his YouTube channel, called Popeye Arrepentido (Remorseful Popeye), which had more than 1.2 million subscribers.

He also directed a movie about his life, wrote two books and hosted tours of Medellín. In some videos he would visit the graves of his victims and recount how he had murdered them.

To the relatives of victims and the authorities, his celebrity was a slap in the face. They said people should not forget that Mr. Velásquez had been a coldblooded assassin who expressed little remorse.

Some of those close to Mr. Escobar have challenged Mr. Velásquez’s self-promotion. Roberto Escobar, his brother, denied the claim that Mr. Velásquez had been Pablo’s right-hand man.

“This is the biggest lie ever,” Roberto said.

Mr. Velásquez sought forgiveness from his victims’ families and insisted that he had changed, yet he would turn on those who refused to forgive him, like the son of a man who was killed in the crash of a plane that had been bombed by Mr. Velásquez’s cartel in 1989. He called the son a “bad man with an evil heart.”

A Netflix series, “Surviving Escobar,” was adapted from one of his books.

“It’s not about monetizing my life story but about telling the stories, the things that happened,” Mr. Velásquez told The New York Times in 2016, referring to his videos and his second career.

Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez was born on April 15, 1962, in Yarumal, 50 miles from Medellín, in northern Colombia. He wanted to be a police officer and joined the Colombian Navy because, he said, he had loved firearms since he was a child. It was in the navy that he acquired the nickname Popeye, for his wide jaw and strength.

He resigned, he told RT in 2017, because the navy “only had old wooden boats and no warships.”

“I only wanted to shoot, kill and get adrenaline kicks,” he said.

He started working for Mr. Escobar when he was around 17. He said Mr. Escobar was “a genius — an evil genius, but a genius anyway.”

Under Mr. Escobar’s orders, Mr. Velásquez said, he kidnapped, tortured or murdered journalists, judges, politicians and rivals. He said he also organized the kidnapping in 1988 of Andrés Pastrana Arango, who later became president, and the murder of the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1990. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder.

Mr. Velásquez joined Mr. Escobar when the drug lord agreed in 1991 to be held in a resortlike prison, La Catedral, which he had his own engineers design. Living in luxury, Mr. Escobar ran his drug business from the jail but escaped months later. Mr. Velásquez turned himself in to the police shortly after, in October 1992.

Mr. Escobar was killed 16 months later in a rooftop shooting in Medellín, his hometown, surrounded by 500 police officers and soldiers.

Mr. Velásquez’s notoriety illustrated the ambivalent relationship that Medellín had with Mr. Escobar and the crimes committed by his cartel, even decades after his death. While the city seems determined to overcome its grim past, many residents have a tolerant attitude toward the tourism it attracts.

“For me, Escobar was a terrorist, a drug dealer, a kidnapper — but he was also my friend,” Mr. Velásquez said. “He treated me with kindness and respect.”

His survivors include a son, Mateo.

Before beginning a sentence at a high-security prison in Valledupar, Mr. Velásquez said he could always some day go back to the mountains that ring Medellín, from which Mr. Escobar had operated.

“Taking up arms is always an option,” he said.

María Iguarán contributed reporting from Medellín, Colombia, and Jenny Carolina González from Bogotá.